INDIANAPOLIS -- Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday they will defer action regarding the embattled Department of Child Services agency until after a third-party review is done through the governor's office.
This means lawmakers will almost certainly leave town without taking any action on DCS despite former Director Mary Beth Bonaventura resigning weeks ago about administrative moves to save money that she said "all but ensure children will die."
Democrats are pushing for hearings now as part of the legislative session that opened Wednesday and runs until March 14.
"We have a duty to know before we leave this session, 'Are the children of this state being adequately protected or not?'" said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson.
But GOP Senate President Pro Tem David Long of Fort Wayne said the legislature is not equipped to hold hearings and make effective decisions about DCS.
He also defended Gov. Eric Holcomb by pointing out he inherited rising caseloads and has added hundreds of millions in extra funding to the agency's budget.
"This is a critically important topic for our state," Long said.
Moments before, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, addressed the issue in the Indiana House, using the same talking points Long did that were discussed Wednesday morning in a meeting among Holcomb, Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma.
Lehman said Indiana has 29,394 children in the child protective system and is an outlier compared to other states. For instance, Illinois has twice the population but half as many abused and neglected children.
He agreed the department's policies and procedures – not just funding – need to be analyzed from top to bottom, and said that's what Holcomb is doing.
One of Bonaventura's complaints was that administrative decisions to try to slow the growth of spending in the agency is putting kids at risk.
Since Bonaventura's bombshell, the governor has hired the nonprofit Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group to do a comprehensive department review – as it has in other states.
But that analysis isn't expected to be done before the end of the session. Instead, Long and Bosma want the Legislative Council – made up of two Republicans and two Democrats – to review the report publicly when it's completed and consider any future action.
Long said he respects Bonavenutura greatly but disagreed with the release of her detailed resignation letter listing her concerns.
He said it's important the state review whether the money is being spent effectively and efficiently, but also noted it's about more than money – it's about letting caseworkers do their job to protect children.
Holcomb has appointed Terry Stigdon as the next director of the Indiana Department of Child Services. Stigdon currently serves as clinical director of operations at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health in Indianapolis, and will start Jan. 22.
House Democratic Leader Terry Goodin of Austin said the legislative short session used to be intended only for emergencies, but now is used regularly to address many topics. Some on tap this year include alcohol matters and marijuana.
He said Republicans shouldn't cede action on DCS to the executive branch.
"This cannot stand," Goodin said. "We have oversight powers.... What could be more dire than protecting at-risk children?"